Final Thoughts: “Top of the Lake” Series One

With the second series, “China Girl”, on the horizon, I decided to rewatch the first series in preparation.

Written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee and directed by both Campion and Lion‘s Garth Davis, Top of the Lake stars Elisabeth Moss as Sydney-based Detective Robin Griffin who visits New Zealand’s South Island to look after her dying mother. While there, she hears news of a twelve year old girl, Tui Mitcham, who walked into a lake after discovering that she was pregnant and when Tui eventually disappears, Robin joins the investigation, determined to bring Tui home to safety. Reuniting with former boyfriend Johnno Mitcham (Tom Wright), she soon starts unearthing some of the island’s dark secrets and seeks to bring down the dangerous criminal kingpin Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan).

I need to start by saying that the first time I watched this series, all those years ago, I didn’t much care for it. Who knows, maybe I missed the point and didn’t fully understand it but I specifically recall leaving every episode with a palpable feeling of annoyance and irritation, mainly due to the characters who, back then, I found to be unlikable, pretentious and sanctimonious. I did realise that the series was clearly very visually appealing but the main characters, mostly the female characters I’m afraid to say, just rubbed me the wrong way and I ended up thinking that the series was seriously overrated.

But that was then.

Second time around, I definitely appreciated this series a great deal more and while it’s never going to be my favourite TV series ever, Top of the Lake is certainly a high quality TV show that is worthy of carrying on for a second season.

Thankfully, I found the characters to be far more tolerable during the rewatch. When I first started watching all those years ago, I hadn’t seen Elisabeth Moss in anything before, I hadn’t yet seen her in Mad Men, and I unfortunately found her to be quite annoying after a while. Now though, having seen her in many additional film/TV projects, I appreciated her performance a great deal more and realised just how great a protagonist Robin Griffin actually is; in a land full of brutish, violent men who don’t take her seriously, she constantly takes charge and is unwavering in her quest to find the young Tui. The role couldn’t really have been taken by anyone else as Moss is essentially flawless; with an impressive Australian accent, she is a strong screen presence whilst also managing to show a softer, caring, vulnerable side, especially when it is revealed that she was once a victim of rape, a story element that I completely forgot about.

Top of the Lake also has an admirable supporting cast. David Wenham is an excellent co-lead as Sergeant Al Parker; for the most part, he is a powerful, authoritative presence with whom Robin can look to for support and guidance while at the same time, hiding certain secrets such as his apparent friendship with the shady Matt Mitchum. And on that note, Peter Mullan is excellent as the aforementioned Matt; he is an effectively dangerous, menacing presence but also has depth to him as well, clearly wanting his missing daughter to return home. And as the androgynous shaman GJ, Holly Hunter gives the series some mysticism and gravitas, though the scenes with her in don’t really go anywhere.

It’s also worth mentioning that the character of Jamie, who I first thought was INSANELY annoying and unlikable, was far more bearable upon rewatch as I could more clearly see that he wanted Tui’s happiness and well-being above all else.

Even though there are long stretches where not much interesting actually happens, the series writing is ultimately rather good and is all consistent and grounded. In particular, episodes five and six allow the series to truly come to life as several bold, shocking revelations are made, some of which I had completely forgotten about, and there are a few more “action” scenes. The series does well with the whole “idyllic setting hides some dark secrets” element and the plot developments towards the end are remarkably gripping, making up for the previous episodes being so slow and testing.

As before, Top of the Lake is undeniably gorgeous to look at (well, with New Zealand you can’t really go wrong) and the series is a visual marvel, boasting some mighty impressive vistas of vast, rocky mountain ranges and enormous blue lakes. It’s the kind of scenery where you loudly exclaim “Damn, that’s amazing!”, especially since the second episode essentially features a helicopter tour of the island and it is certainly worth watching in Blu-ray – I did and it was a veritable feast for the eyes!

I still don’t think that the series is perfect though as episodes two, three and four do tend to drag and in hindsight, not a lot actually happens in those episodes. Obviously it’s all necessary, since it’s important to properly develop the characters and to gradually put all the story pieces together but the pacing of these episodes is far too leisurely and it all gets regrettably boring after a certain point. Top of the Lake also tends to get a bit pretentious and self-involved at times, especially during the scenes which take place at the female encampment, Paradise, given their tendency to continually spout phony philosophical speeches that don’t really mean anything. However, it’s definitely not as pretentious as I found it to be the first time around.


A tad pretentious and with a testing, leisurely pace but ultimately a deep, dark, complex thriller with spectacular visuals and an excellent performance from Elisabeth Moss.

★ ★ ★ ★


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